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The Price of Cash

By Ashley Bartlett

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 Ashley Bartlett

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The Price of Cash

Cash Braddock’s summer started bad and it’s getting worse. Her suppliers keep getting arrested. Her competition is poaching all her customers. Laurel isn’t who Cash thought she was. And her farm is under a microscope, which makes money laundering difficult.

There’s a new dealer on Cash’s turf. When kids start dying from the dealer’s pills, Detective Kallen turns to Cash for answers. Turns out her reputation for selling pills doesn’t make her an expert. It makes her a suspect. Cash preferred it when she knew which cops were bad and good.

Last time, her business and reputation were on the line. Now, she’s got to worry about staying out of jail. And stay alive.

Second in the Cash Braddock series.

What Reviewers Say About Ashley Bartlett’s Work

Dirty Sex

“A young, new author, Ashley Bartlett definitely should be on your radar. She’s a really fresh, unique voice in a sea of good authors. …I found [Dirty Sex] to be flawless. The characters are deep and the action fast-paced. The romance feels real, not contrived. There are no fat, padded scenes, but no skimpy ones either. It’s told in a strong first-person voice that speaks of the author’s and her character’s youth, but serves up surprisingly mature revelations.”—Out in Print


Dirty Money

“Bartlett has exquisite taste when it comes to selecting the right detail. And no matter how much plot she has to get through, she never rushes the game. Her writing is so well-paced and so self-assured, she should be twice as old as she really is. That self-assuredness also mirrors through to her characters, who are fully realized and totally believable.”—Out in Print

“Bartlett has succeeded in giving us a mad-cap story that will keep the reader turning page after page to see what happens next.”—Lambda Literary


Dirty Power

“Bartlett’s talents are many. She knows her way around an action scene, she writes memorably hot sex, her plots are seamless, and her characters are true and deep. And if that wasn’t enough, Coop’s voice is so genuine, so world-weary, jaded, and outrageously sarcastic that if Bartlett had none of the aforementioned attributes, the read would still be entertaining enough to stretch over three books.”—Out in Print


Cash Braddock

“There were moments I laughed out loud, pop culture references that I adored and parts I cringed because I’m a good girl and Cash is kind of bad. I relished the moments that Laurel and Cash spent alone. These two are really a good match and their chemistry just jumps off the page. Playful, serious and sarcastic all rolled into one harmonious pairing. The story is great, the characters are fantastic and the twist, well, I never saw it coming.”—The Romantic Reader

The Price of Cash

© 2017 By Ashley Bartlett. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13:978-1-62639-709-5


This Electronic Original is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: November 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Megan Tillman

By the Author

Sex & Skateboards


Dirty Trilogy

Dirty Sex

Dirty Money

Dirty Power


Cash Braddock Series

Cash Braddock

The Price of Cash

Acknowledgments

There are no moral absolutes. No one, nothing is ever entirely right or wrong. We don’t tend to reach that realization until we are far past childhood, far past the decisions we might have made otherwise if we had known.

This book is about stasis. The moment when you realize that some people will never understand you, never empathize with you, never entirely see you. It is about the panic that washes through you and suddenly you think the only solution is to freeze. If you don’t move, then maybe you’ll never have to admit that you are misunderstood. That your concept of right and their concept of wrong have aligned and one of you must falter. As Cash finds in this book, the truly paralyzing moments are those when someone else has the relative high ground.

I spent a lot of time avoiding writing this book while I was supposed to be writing this book. My haiku game has certainly improved, which is entirely unhelpful in novel writing. Carsen, you’re the reason I finished writing (not the haiku, the novel). Between the numerous pep talks, your inexplicable need to use the telephone, and your talent for finding inventive ways to break the law, you saved me. Thank you.

Bold Strokes has been my home since I was a tiny tot. Every time they send a contract, I think they’ve lost their damn minds. So thanks, Rad and Sandy, for not being sane. Cindy, I’ll probably never forgive you for inflating my ego. I’m not sure what you were thinking.

And you, my audience. Thanks for coming back even when logic and propriety suggest you should go the other way. Cash and I couldn’t do it without you.

Dedication

For my wife.

My moral center might be off,

but at least it’s the same as yours.

Chapter One

Laurel’s hands were under my shirt. The tips of her fingers dug intricate, meaningless patterns across my stomach. Her thigh pressed between my legs in the most delicious way. My neck tingled where her lips brushed against my skin.

“We need to make the deal out back. It’s too crowded in here. The audio will be worthless,” she whispered in my ear. Detective Kallen had a way of really killing my pseudo mood.

I did my best to make it look like Laurel was whispering dirty, sexy plans for the evening. Jason was staring at us from across the table. He was grinning in that bro way. Like he was about to break out the high fives. Our act was clearly working.

It wasn’t difficult to play the lie when Laurel had me so turned on that my boxer briefs were soaked. The hard part was convincing her that my arousal was just an act. When I was finished with that lie, I planned on convincing myself.

“Babe, babe. Slow down.” I gripped her wrists and pulled her hands out of my shirt. “I think we need to cool off.”

Laurel grinned at me. “You’re too easy.”

“You’re cruel.” I kissed her. Softly. The kind of kiss that was a promise. She groaned, then stifled it. “Let’s head outside. I can’t think in here.”

Laurel rolled her eyes and led the way out back. Jason grabbed his backpack and shook his head. Laurel kept my hand firmly in her grasp, which had a lot more to do with staying in range of the wire she was wearing than intimacy.

“How do you do it?” he asked.

“What?”

“Get chicks to want you like that?”

“Secret lesbian power. Can’t tell you.” I bumped him with my shoulder. I almost felt bad. But I was selfish. Better him than me.

Laurel chose a table on the far end of the patio. It was darker, quieter out here. She sat at the far side of the table. I slid to the back, which left Jason sitting with his back to the next table and a Latino guy in his early forties. Lucas Reyes. Kallen’s partner.

I reminded myself that Jason had screwed me over once. Years ago, when I was just getting started. I hadn’t gotten a solid supply line yet. He offered to hook me up with a doctor at a clinic in Elk Grove. After the first few shipments, I realized he was taking a finder’s fee he hadn’t mentioned. I was paying three times the street rate. When I confronted him, the supply suddenly dried up.

It wasn’t an uncommon business practice. I’d been pissed at the time, but that faded. My dirty sheriff, Henry, became much more adept at stealing from the evidence locker. That was before he lost his shit and tried to kill Kallen. And me. Henry was a dick.

Now, Jason stuck to the south side of the county. I stuck to the north. And we didn’t mess with each other’s supply lines. Until tonight. He’d been cool when I called to explain that my guy had disappeared. Offered a rate born of belated mutual respect.

I tried to recapture my earlier anger, but it was worthless. I couldn’t dilute my guilt with a grudge that was half a decade old.

Jason settled into his seat, leaned forward a little. Enough for privacy, but not enough for intimidation. “Tell me what happened.”

“Honestly, I don’t know,” I said.

“I thought your guy was solid.”

“Same. He was off the last few months. Just jumpy, you know? Nervous. And then, gone.” I snapped my fingers.

“And you don’t know why?” Jason seemed intrigued, not skeptical.

Laurel sighed and gave me a look. I sighed and sent the look right back to her. “No.”

“What?” Jason asked.

I waved my hand like it was her show. “Whatever.”

Laurel leaned closer to Jason. “I think he was supplying someone else.”

“That’s cold.” Jason shook his head. “You sure you didn’t off him?” He grinned at me.

I laughed. “Believe me, I’d love to smack the shit out of him, but no. He’d be much more useful to me alive. Asshole left me in a tight spot.”

“I feel that.” Jason set his backpack on the table. “This will hold you over, but it will take a while to set up something steady.”

“You mind?” I pointed at the bag. He shook his head. I unzipped it and looked inside. It held three quart-size Ziplocs filled with pills. Blue and white. Another bag was half-full of faint orange.

Jason outlined his terms. He was still overcharging me a little. I pushed back to make it look real, but I wasn’t trying very hard. Laurel played the role of bored girlfriend beautifully. So beautifully I had to remove her hands from my body three times before stopping my conversation with Jason.

“Babe.” I gave her a stern look.

She knocked off a couple of IQ points and pouted. “What?”

“We’re having a discussion.” I nodded at Jason.

“Wrap it up.” Kallen leaned close and placed a line of delicate kisses down my throat. Clearly, we had gathered enough evidence to satisfy her.

“Sorry, man. Would love to stay,” I said to Jason.

“No worries.” Jason grinned. I slid an envelope across the table. Jason counted the money and pocketed it. “Pleasure doing business with you.” He held out his hand. I shook it and shouldered the backpack of drugs.

“Come on.” Laurel tugged my shirt to pull me toward the gate leading to the street.

Before we could open the gate, a uniformed officer stepped into view on the opposite side. Kallen shot me a look. Jason hesitated. I just opened the gate and kept walking.

“Excuse me.” The officer stepped in front of us.

Laurel and I looked at each other. We shared a moment of perfect understanding, then sprinted in opposite directions.

Jason took off half a second behind us. He shouted a stream of curses as the uniform tackled him. There was a dull thud as another cop landed on top of them.

I took a quick right down an alleyway. Pounding footsteps echoed behind me. They were moving a lot faster than I was. Running had never been my thing. I wondered briefly how much they had told the uniforms on this detail. The chances that they had been told I was an informant were slim. This was going to hurt. I spared a glance at my pursuer. It was Reyes. I stopped running.

“Christ, Braddock. Why are you making me run?” Reyes bent at the waist and did some heavy breathing.

I leaned against the fence that ran the length of the alley and worked on my own breathing exercises. “I didn’t know it was you.” I dropped the backpack of evidence between us.

“You’re lucky. The guy chasing Kallen just failed his detective exam and is pissed.” He straightened and shot me a grin.

“Does he know she’s a detective?”

Reyes nodded. “He went through the academy with her brother. They didn’t get along.”

I laughed, then felt mildly guilty. “It will look realistic, at least.”

“On that note.” He spun his finger in a circle. “Hands behind your back.”

“Can’t you punch me first? I have a reputation.”

“I’m not punching you.”

“Please?”

“Not a chance.” He pulled a set of cuffs from under the back of his jacket.

I shook my head. Cops were such assholes. “Give me a sec.” I rubbed my palm against the side of my head until the pomade loosened up. When it felt sufficiently disheveled, I spun and put my hands behind my back. “All right, Detective.”

“You’re a jackass.” He tightened the cuff on one of my wrists.

“I respectfully disagree.” A curl fell onto my forehead. I blew it off. The second cuff clicked shut. “Don’t go so tight.”

“Sorry. Authenticity.” Somehow, I doubted his reasoning. Reyes grabbed the backpack in one hand and gripped the handcuffs with the other to guide me.

By the time we got back to the bar, Jason was already in the back of a cruiser. Kallen and two uniforms were half a block in the other direction. She looked small between them. Every few steps, she would jerk her arm out of the grip of the blond cop on her right. Her nose was bleeding. Blood was smeared across the forearm of the guy she was clearly trying to get away from.

“Looks like they went a little too realistic,” I said quietly.

“Yeah. I think I’ll go intervene. Can I hand you off to a uniform?”

“Don’t. She wouldn’t want you to.” I didn’t take the time to analyze why I cared about Laurel’s feelings. They weren’t my business anymore.

Reyes sighed, but didn’t hand me off. He opened the back door of his Crown Vic. I was about to duck in when Reyes went stiff. I followed his gaze. The blond cop was on the ground. Laurel was smirking as the other cop dragged her away.

“What the hell is she doing?” Reyes asked.

I looked around. The other uniforms were hustling to help get Laurel into a car. Jason caught my eye. He looked a little terrified, but he was laughing his ass off. He mouthed “badass” and started shaking his head. I grinned at him and shrugged. Reyes put his hand on my head and shoved me the rest of the way into the car.

A few minutes later, Reyes got behind the wheel. He waited until the cruiser carrying Jason had a decent start before turning on the car.

“You want me to drop you at home?” We pulled into the street.

“I don’t need to stop by the station?” Not that I was complaining about getting these cuffs off sooner rather than later.

“We will need your statement, but it can wait. I have a feeling we’ll be tied up for most of the evening.”

“Is Kallen going to have issues with that blond cop?”

Reyes shrugged. “Oakley didn’t like her before. So no more than usual.”

He was lying, but I didn’t want to push it. No, I didn’t need to push it. Laurel wasn’t my concern. “You want to drop me on Twentieth? I’ll walk from there.”

We cut over a few blocks and Reyes pulled into an alley. He opened the door and I slid to the edge of the seat. I stood against the car while he loosened the cuffs.

“Either Kallen or I will call you in the morning. Try not to get arrested tonight.”

I turned and leaned back on the trunk. Reyes huffed and rolled his eyes when I rubbed at the red mark ringing one of my wrists. “Generally, I try not to get arrested. It’s not my fault you guys have all of these standards.”

“They’re called laws. When we call, answer.”

I decided not to respond. He knew I was going to pick up. “Have a good night, Detective.” I walked down the alley, finger combing my hair back into place.

He climbed back in his car and took off. I had participated in a few smaller busts already, but this was the first time he cut me loose before we got to the station. Maybe they were starting to trust that I wouldn’t run. It didn’t seem likely. Trust wasn’t high on their list of motivations.

* * *

Grab a drink with me?

I sent the text without much thought. Going home felt lonely. It never had before. Now everything there seemed to carry Laurel. It was weighted with the potential for what could have been. Memories we would have made. Instead of hope, I had the lies we’d told each other. Wading through my disappointment every time I opened the front door was wearing on me.

So I walked to the gay bars that were huddled on one corner as if separating would dilute them. Mercantile Saloon spilled across its patio, over the disused parking lot, so that the noise enveloped the street. Thumping music, contrived laughter, the squeals of straight girls granted access to the sanctum. I rushed past the spectacle and slid into the overt darkness of The Depot. I ignored the corner where Laurel had once waited for me. I had made it so easy for her to seduce me, to entrap me. A quiet, low voice in my head reminded me that Jason was being booked into County and I wasn’t. His freedom for mine.

Then again, I wasn’t free either.

I felt heat against my back and breath across my neck. “Hey, stranger, come here often?” Kyra’s voice was low and warm and enticing.

“Hey.” I turned to let her slide between me and the press of bodies lined at the bar. “You got my text.” I put my hand low on her back. It wasn’t possessive. Intimate, maybe. It felt like a shield. If I was here with someone, I wasn’t here alone. I wasn’t anywhere alone.

“I was staring at the walls, the ceiling, out the window. Basically, doing everything I could to avoid actually painting.”

“So I saved you from yourself?”

“You’re my hero.” Kyra leaned in and kissed my cheek.

The press of her lips was smooth and soothing. A promise without the weight. She expected nothing, demanded nothing. She stayed close as we tried to get the attention of the bartender. The bare skin of her midriff seemed to radiate heat. She was wearing big boots and slim jeans with a flannel tied below her waist. I liked the brush of cotton against my bare forearm. I liked the casual press of her body against mine. As if we had done this a thousand times before. Which, to be fair, wasn’t inaccurate. I’d known Kyra for years, but I hadn’t seen her in years. She’d come back from Los Angeles midsummer. There was a comfort in fucking an old friend. She understood me in a way that I allowed from very few people. She had known me before all of the walls of adulthood were built.

We ordered drinks and made our way to the back corner of the building. It was loud. The TVs mounted everywhere were playing the most recent sexually fraught female pop music video. Two women were grinding suggestively against each other. There were no dudes on screen. MTV was dead, but videos were apparently still the progressive frontier.

“So tell me what you’re working on.”

That was all it took to launch Kyra. I scooted my bar stool so I could lean against the wall and watch her speak. When she talked about painting, it settled her. Her core went entirely still, but her hands danced. There was a streak of pale green oil paint that stood out in stark contrast to her skin. She started tracing her fingers through the air to sketch the plateau she was working on. She tended to do the same thing when we fucked. My body became an involuntary sketch pad.

“You’re not understanding a damn thing I’m saying, are you?” Kyra smiled to let me know she wasn’t mad.

“No. But I’m enjoying watching you,” I said. She shook her head. “You’re all academic and artistic and it’s hot.”

“Don’t fetishize my livelihood.” Her admonishment was contrived.

“Then what should I fetishize? All you do is paint and talk about painting.”

“You sound like my mother.” Kyra’s mouth turned down as she realized what she had said. “No, wait. Not the fetishizing. The painting thing.” Kyra sat up straighter. “There is more to the world than painting.” She drew out her vowels in an affected Persian accent.

I locked my gaze just over Kyra’s shoulder. “Oh, hello, Mrs. Daneshmandan, what are you doing here?”

Kyra spun halfway around before she realized. She whirled back and slapped my stomach. “You’re an asshole.”

“Why would your mother be in a gay bar in Midtown?” I managed to ask through my laughter.

“I don’t know. You seemed so sincere.” She shook her head. “You suck.”

“I’ve never even met your mother.”

“And you never will. Because you’re an asshole.” She dropped her hands to rest on my thigh.

“I don’t know how I’ll ever recover.” I almost sounded sincere.

Kyra started drumming her fingertips along the inseam of my jeans. “So Saturday. You’re coming? You got the postcard?”

I tried to come up with a coherent response. Instead I mumbled nonsense.

“I’m going to take that as a yes?”

“No, I mean, yes. Probably not though. I don’t know if I’m available.” This was why I didn’t like to lie. I was terrible at it.

“Oh, good. That cleared it right up.”

“I’m sorry. It’s just Second Saturday.”

“An occasion you love. Your favorite part of summer. You never used to miss it.” Each point was punctuated by a tantalizingly brief tap against my leg.

“I know. My neighbor and I—she’s my best friend, kind of. We always go together. It’s our thing,” I said. Kyra waited. “We missed the last one.” More waiting. “We haven’t spoken in over a month. I don’t know if I can go without her.”

“I’m not following.”

“We might be fighting.”

“You don’t know?”

“No.”

“Got it. So continuing to not speak is a great move. And you should absolutely skip Second Saturday.” Her hands started their dance again. “Now, there are some people who would suggest talking to this friend, but I think you’re making the right move. You’ve always been super passive, which makes the not talking a highly logical choice.”

I didn’t think I’d ever heard so much sarcasm packed into so few words. I loved where she was coming from, but I didn’t have the energy to analyze it. “Can we not talk about this?”

Kyra stopped her rambling long enough to search my face. She nodded once, then leaned forward and kissed me. Her lips were chapped and warm. The thick curls that tumbled into her eyes tickled my brow. I reached up and cupped the back of her head. Her soft hair was buzzed and shaved closer to the scalp than I’d ever dared. She groaned and pulled away. I watched her study me. Her eyes were ringed in dark makeup, her lashes a long, delicate fan.

“You know I like you, right?” Kyra asked. “I mean, I like this.” She squeezed my thigh. “But I like you. As a person. You’re not bad like you think you are.”

I forced myself to smile. “I know. You’re wrong and you shouldn’t, but yeah.”

She shook her head and grinned. “My place?”

“Yeah.” I took a long drink from the beer I had forgotten and stood.

Kyra slid her hand into mine and led me out of the bar.

Chapter Two

It was just after three when I got home. The streets were finally quieting down. The summer heat tended to inspire revelry, not sleep. Kallen’s truck was at the curb. It looked faintly green in the streetlight. My SUV wasn’t in the driveway. I remembered belatedly that I had driven to the meeting with Jason to prove some point. I couldn’t remember what point, but I sure made it. That was going to be a long walk in the morning. I knew I could ask Laurel for a ride when she came to pick up her truck, but I didn’t want to.

My porch light was off again. One day I was going to consistently remember to turn it on before I left the house. I climbed the steps and just managed to keep myself from jumping when I saw movement at the far end of the porch. My eyes adjusted and I realized Laurel was asleep on the bench.

A thick wall ringed the edge of the porch. It was about three feet high. Just enough to build deep shadows. The smooth sheen of Laurel’s hair caught the moonlight, but everything else was in darkness. As my eyes adjusted, I could see her slouch. Feet planted, the arrogant spread of her legs. Her arms were folded protectively over her chest. She had thrown a red-pink chambray button up over her T-shirt, but I was guessing she hadn’t gone home.

I walked over and nudged her foot with one of mine. “Hey, Laurel.” Nothing. “Detective Kallen,” I said loudly.

She shot upright, grunted, and glared at me.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

She rubbed her eyes vigorously, then shot her cuff and squinted at her watch. “Oh, good. I was afraid you hadn’t properly fucked her, but five hours seems like plenty of time.”

“I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“You’re not denying it.” Kallen carefully arranged the cuff back over her watch.

I shrugged. “I’m not discussing it. I’m not accountable to you.”

“You’re accountable to our cover.”

“I think you’ll find that not even the Sacramento Police Department can regulate who I fuck.” I turned away from her. If she wanted to sleep on the porch, that was her business.

“You know she’s not even a lesbian, right?” Laurel’s question was quiet, desperate.

“She’s pan. So what?” As soon as I spoke, I knew I shouldn’t have. Announcing that Kyra was pansexual was clearly an assertion of dominance, a demonstration of Laurel’s ability to gather information. Indulging her wouldn’t get us anywhere.

“Yeah, but she’s not a lesbian.”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I spun back to glare at her.

“Nothing. I’m just letting you know.” Laurel pushed herself farther up the bench. Her posture was still casual, arrogant, but with a hint of the stiffness of a salute in it.

“What business is it of yours if she’s a lesbian?”

“It should be yours.” She wouldn’t look at me. Just studied the street.

“Are you seriously policing her queerness right now?” I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation. I shook my head, but nothing changed. “I don’t know why I asked that. You police everything else. Why not sexuality? What about mine? Am I enough of a lesbian? Or am I tainted now?”

Laurel finally met my eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Okay, fine. It is.” Her mouth was set in a hard line. “I didn’t mean it though.” She unfolded herself from the bench. “Your life is my business now. Your choices affect me.”

It was what I wanted. But as soon as she brushed past me and descended the stairs, I no longer wanted it. The door of her truck popped and creaked. I let myself into the house. The air was still, stagnant.

* * *

I was staring at the ceiling and trying to convince myself to get out of bed when there was a knock at the door. It seemed as good an impetus as any so I rolled out of bed. I was wrestling myself into too tight jeans and stumbling down the hallway when the back door opened.

“This is stupid. I get it. You’re mad, but I’m not sure what you think I could have done. So I’ve decided that you’re wrong.” Robin nudged the door closed with her foot. She walked past me into the kitchen and set two cups of coffee on the table. She sat and popped the lid off one cup. “Also, it’s Second Saturday and it killed me not to go out last month. I miss you. You’re a jerk and you’re bad at talking and I should probably feel guilty, but I don’t because you’re a jerk.”

I yanked my hand out of my jeans, buttoned them, and shuffled the rest of the way into the kitchen. I pulled out my own chair and collapsed into it. “You think I’m mad at you?”

“You don’t call. You don’t come over. Andy said you haven’t contacted her. You can be mad at me, but that’s not cool.”

“I haven’t even seen Andy.” It was as if she had disappeared. If she was putting that much effort into avoiding me, I wasn’t going to push it. Hell, Robin hadn’t even asked me to keep an eye on Andy. Not that I blamed her. Drug dealer.

Robin stopped blowing across the surface of her coffee and stared at me. “Andy’s been out of town for three weeks.”

“Huh?”

“Three weeks. No Andy. That’s why I’ve been working nights.”

“You haven’t been avoiding me?”

“No. You’ve been avoiding me.”

“I was giving you space. I brought the police into our home. They searched the place. Put up notices and tape.” I waved my hand at the front door. “I hid drug paraphernalia in your closet. I put you and your kid at risk.”

“Huh.” Robin made a face at her coffee. Then she started laughing.

“What? Stop it. Why are you laughing?”

“I thought you were mad that I didn’t stop them from ransacking your place.” She continued laughing. “I have drug paraphernalia in my closet?”

“In the ceiling. That storage space.” This was all very strange.

“Oh my God. I told you to put it there, didn’t I?”

I nodded slowly. “Years ago.”

“So I’ve got drugs in my closet?” Robin asked. I nodded. “And you’re not pissed that I let the police tear your place apart?” I shook my head. “And you thought Andy was avoiding you?” I nodded. “Oh, Cash. I missed you.” Robin leaned over and pulled me into a hug.

I had a lot of questions. I decided to ignore all of them and give into the hug. “I’m glad you decided to tell me I’m a jerk.”

Robin shrugged. “I had a shitty shift last night. On my way home, I stopped for coffee and I didn’t realize until they handed me two cups that I had ordered for you too.”

“Aww, you did miss me.” I finally grabbed the coffee. It smelled good. Like coffee. “So tell me about the shitty shift.”

Robin nodded once and grinned at her coffee. She told me about getting peed on and a teenager dying from an overdose and another losing a leg and how someone had changed the soap in the locker room to one that she hated. It was all sad, but it felt less so to hear it shared. She twirled her empty coffee cup until I put my hand over hers to keep her still.

We were interrupted by the beeping of my cell phone. I dug it out of my pocket and fought a grimace. Reyes. “Sorry. Give me a sec.” I swiped. “Hello.”

“Cash, it’s Reyes.”

As if his number wasn’t stored in my phone. “What’s up?”

There was a swell of noise that sounded like the squad room. “Sorry. Give me a minute.” A door slammed and the rhythmic click of Reyes’s boots echoed off cement stairs. “I’d like to meet you and go over our reports from last night. Are you available this afternoon?” I imagined him leaning against the wall in the stairwell, the ankles of his designer pants hiked up just so.

“Sure.”

“Good. Two o’clock at Rick’s Dessert Diner? That early, we should be able to get a private table.”

“Wait. Me and you? What about Laurel?”

“Oh.” He cleared his throat. “Her schedule is a beast this week. She asked me to take the meeting.”

That wasn’t right. I didn’t trust the sudden shift in our routine. I could imagine a thousand reasons, few of them good. But I trusted Reyes. Then again, I’d trusted Laurel Collins. I’d have to watch myself. “Fine. Two o’clock.”

“Thanks.” Reyes hung up.

“Sorry.” I set my phone on the table.

“So how is Laurel?” Robin asked. She smiled knowingly and I realized she didn’t know.

“Shit.”

“What?”

“I…we haven’t talked.”

“Oh no. Did you break up? Sorry. I thought you said her name. She’s been around a fair bit.” Robin resumed spinning her cup. I let her.

“No. I mean, yes. You and I haven’t talked. Laurel is a cop.”

Robin stopped twirling. She pulled her hands back to her lap carefully. The kitchen felt silent and slow. After a minute, she spoke. “She was watching you.”

“Yes.”

She nodded once with finality. “Can you talk about it?”

“I’m not supposed to. Legally.” That seemed like a good point to clarify. “Then again, I’m not supposed to have drugs stored in your closet—which I need, by the way—so I don’t mind telling you. Only if you want to know.”

“It seems like something I should know.”

I nodded. “Laurel’s real name is Laurel Kallen, not Collins.” Robin blinked rapidly. Like she was struggling to comprehend the incomprehensible. “She’s a detective with Sacramento PD. She and her partner, Lucas Reyes, liaise with the local FBI office on narcotics cases. They recruited her because she’s very talented at undercover work.” I stopped explaining when I realized that Robin was crying. “Whoa, hey. We’re past that. It is what it is.”

“But she made you fall—She started a relationship with you. That’s unforgivable. Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” She put her hand on my forearm.

I shrugged. Then nodded. Then I didn’t know what to do so I shrugged again. “She did her job. I did mine. She was better.”

“But that’s…” Robin searched my eyes. As if I knew the word. “Immoral.”

“I’m a drug dealer.”

“Illegal.”

“Drug. Dealer.” I slowed it down.

“Fucked up.”

“Okay, yeah.” That one I could get behind.

“You breaking the rules doesn’t give her the right to do so.”

I appreciated her trying, but I had been wrestling that angel for a month. “No, I think the law does that.”

“So?” Robin huffed. She was doing a lot of moral stretching to make me feel better. I loved her for that.

“Yeah, I get it. What are laws anyway? Just rules some old white dude wrote down.”

“Yeah.” Robin clenched her fists.

“But you and I happen to agree with most laws.” I kept my tone even.

Robin rolled her eyes. “I’m quite aware of what I believe, thank you.”

“I’ve been having this conversation with myself for a long time,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Morality. Laws. Whatever. I’ve been thinking a lot.”

Robin laughed. “Did prison scare you straight?”

“Jail.” I raised an eyebrow. “And, no. Before that. Since I started dealing.”

“Seems like something you’ve been questioning for a decade might not be worth pursuing.” She was gentle, but it was hard for that not to sting.

“But I haven’t exactly been debating if it’s wrong. It’s more like I’ve been debating what wrong is. I haven’t figured that out yet. How do I know that what I do is wrong if I don’t know what wrong is?” I asked. Robin was staring at me like I’d lost my goddamn mind. “Okay, back up. I know what wrong is, but think about it. We only know what’s wrong situationally. Like each action dictates the potential wrong.”

“True.” She said it real slow. “At work, I’ve taken various oaths to guide my behavior. I want to preserve life. That’s why I’m a nurse.”

“When you drive, you don’t want to kill people so you follow laws.”

“We don’t want to kill people because taking life is wrong.”

“Is it?” I asked. Then I laughed. Robin definitely thought I’d lost it. “I don’t kill people because the punishment is high. And because I don’t want the guilt of having taken a life. That’s about me. Not them. Not their potential. Not morals. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me. Maybe it would. Testing the theory has a cost that’s too high. So I don’t kill people. Why don’t you kill people?”

She started blinking at me again. “Isn’t it too early for you to be this philosophical?”

“Never.” I smiled and felt wicked.

“You are strange.”

“And you love me.”

Robin put her hand over mine. “I do.”

Chapter Three

The original Dessert Diner had been on K Street in a narrow, dingy building. It didn’t need to be retro; it was vintage. Cracked pink vinyl. Chipped gray Formica. The pink neon sign was actually neon. They were open as late as the bars. Every kid in a thirty-mile radius had ended up there at some point on prom night.

But then the rent tripled and they moved.

Now it was bright white lights. Shiny red vinyl booths. New white Formica tables. Everything seemed clean. It was blinding at midnight. But at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, it was whitewashed, glaring. I had never been in during daylight hours and I vowed I never would be again.

Instead of intoxicated twenty-year-olds, the patrons were suburban family types in the big city for an outing. Toddlers inhaled handfuls of sugar. Kids screeched and sprinted. And parents watched their offspring’s displays with what appeared to be affection and joy.

Reyes was tucked in a booth at the back. There were two cups of coffee in front of him. He looked out of place, but content until a kid screeched. His jaw tightened. His knuckles went pale. Good. He was regretting this venue too.

I slid into the booth across from him. “This is atrocious.”

Reyes nodded. “I’ll make this quick. The statement you emailed looks fine. Kallen is processing it right now.”

“Then why am I here?”

“I’ve never been one for tact.” He sighed. “Can I just ask you some questions and we will pretend I was subtle?”

“Depends. How serious are you about that?”

He grimaced. “Pretty serious. My partner does our undercover work for a reason. I’m better with straightforward. She says I need to work on it.”

I laughed. He was being serious. “How about this. I will swear up and down that we had a conversation and whatever subject you want to discuss happened to come up of its own volition.”

“Great.” Reyes was genuinely excited at that prospect.

“If you answer some of my questions.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah, you hmm that.” I slid out of the booth and grabbed my mug. “I’m switching this for iced coffee. It’s two hundred degrees outside. Why would you order two-hundred-degree coffee?”

Reyes shrugged and waved me off. When I returned with a glass of cold, black coffee Reyes had a notebook and a pen out on the table.

“I’ll answer your questions, but I also reserve the right to not answer.”

“That’s vague.” I scooted back into the booth.

“Just don’t ask me something compromising,” he said

That was still vague. “Fine.”

Another kid screamed at a pitch I didn’t know was possible. Reyes and I both jumped and looked. The little darling was standing three feet from our table. He was wearing damp swim trunks and a fedora. Apparently, he had discovered the neon-ringed clock on the wall. It was delightful. Just like him.

Reyes shook himself. “You were saying something.”

“Oh, yeah. Questions. You go first.”

“Fentanyl. What do you know about it?” he asked.

“Synthetic opioid. Potent, but volatile as hell. You want to narrow that question down?”

“Do you deal it?”

“Detective Reyes, I don’t deal any drugs.” I fought the urge to grin at him.

He grunted. “Have you ever sold fentanyl?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I like my customers alive. They buy more product that way.”

His mouth set into a hard, straight line. “Who does deal it?”

I shrugged. “Not sure. Jerome St. Maris might. He’s been moving in on my customers. And he doesn’t mind if people die.”

“And that answer has nothing to do with the fact that he’s your rival?”

“Jason Warren is a possibility. But he’s sitting in County right now. Danny Cicero or Christi Jerod, but I’m guessing they already are on your list.”

Reyes smirked. I had no compunction about giving these guys up. I knew the cops were already interested in them. Including their names didn’t damage my compatriots at all. It did, however, make me look very cooperative.

“Can you give me something viable to look at?” Reyes sounded skeptical. It seemed he had realized that my compliance wasn’t quantifiable.

“Honestly, that’s all I got.” And it was. “Fentanyl isn’t common enough to warrant a market. If someone is building a business around it, they’re new. I’ll ask Nate. He’s up on trends more than I am.”

He wrote some notes. “What about someone selling counterfeit pills?”

“Like placebos?”

“No, like claiming a pill is Oxy, but really it’s a cocktail that mimics Oxy.”

“Sounds like a short-term plan.” There were plenty of dealers who used similar business models, but it was too unpredictable for me. And douchey. That too.

“How so?” He seemed less curious about the broad answer and more interested in my answer.

“You can’t build a client list. Once someone takes your shit and realizes it isn’t what they paid for, they won’t buy from you again. If you make money going to raves and festivals, then you can get away with unreliable product. But if you want consistency, you need to provide consistency.”

“But if someone wanted to make a quick buck…”

“Yeah, they could probably do it that way.”

“Okay. Thanks.” He wrote that down, then carefully set his pen on the notepad. He made a face like he was preparing himself. “What do you want to ask me?”

I did my best not to laugh at him. “Do you have anything new on Jerome St. Maris?”

“Come on, Braddock. You know I can’t answer that. And saying no makes me look like a jackass. Ask me something I can answer.”

“He stole half my clients already.”

“I thought you didn’t deal drugs.” He didn’t bother to hide the smirk.

“Maybe I just want to see the asshole squirm. I’m hemorrhaging money and clients. I don’t have a supply line or clients even if I wanted to keep my business afloat. And this dick is sitting pretty. Ease my inadequacy.”

“I don’t even have anything to tell you. I’m sorry.” He seemed it. “Ask me something else.”

“Where is Kallen right now? Why didn’t she take this meeting?” That was not the question I had planned, but after last night’s encounter, I couldn’t help it. Was she avoiding me?

Reyes broke eye contact. “She’s in meetings.”

“This is a meeting.”

He made eye contact again. “I was serious. Her schedule is a beast this week.”

“Then why was she out till three last night?”

A flicker of confusion crossed his otherwise pretty features. “I don’t know. Was she?”

I ignored his question in favor of my own. “Why are you being vague about her schedule?”

“A complaint was filed against her.”

I wasn’t sure if he got bored of being evasive or just had run out of non-answers, but at least we were making progress. “For what?”

“I don’t know. She isn’t allowed to tell me the details.”

“Of course. So don’t tell me the details that she didn’t tell you.” My tone suggested the exact opposite of what I was saying. “What is the complaint about?”

“You. Her involvement with you.”

“But I didn’t file a complaint.”

“Interesting.”

Super. So Reyes thought the complaint could have come from me? “What’s in the complaint?”

“I knew I shouldn’t have agreed to this.” He straightened the already straight pen and pad of paper on the table.

“It’s cool. I’ll just tell Kallen that you wanted me to tell you everything I knew about fentanyl and asked me a bunch of very specific questions.”

He sighed in a masculine way. “The complaint alleges that Kallen has an inappropriate relationship with you.”

“Meaning what?”

“Favoritism, ignoring evidence of ongoing distribution, targeting your business rivals to aid you…” Reyes became very interested in the tabletop. “An ongoing sexual relationship.”

I laughed because I kind of felt like vomiting. It was the worst sort of accusation. There was just enough truth to make the utter fiction damning. “Well, at least we know it didn’t come from me.” He said nothing. Which said plenty. “Christ, thanks for the confidence. If half that were true, I’d be better off keeping my mouth shut.”

“And if it’s a fabrication, you have plenty to gain.”

“Except I’d still be at the mercy of the state, but without the relationship I’ve built with the two of you to protect me.”

“You have a point there.”

“What did Kallen say?”

“Not much.”

“Where do you think it came from?”

He met my eyes finally. After a long moment where he tried to find my soul or something, he nodded. “Okay, I didn’t think it was you either. Not your style. The accusation is vague. Just enough that whoever made the complaint doesn’t need to prove anything. The damage is done.”

I realized that I was focused entirely on the sexual allegations. That wasn’t where Reyes was. “Favoritism,” I said. He smiled bitterly. “Even if we go completely by the book, any information could have been tainted by favoritism.”

“And if you give us a useful tip, it could be a tool to garner favors. Or if you’re caught so much as jaywalking, then we should have known and prevented it.”

“So by not predicting and preventing any of my future illegal behaviors, you’re looking the other way?” I asked.

From there, I could see the implications spread. I wondered if that was why she had shown up on my porch the night before. It wasn’t jealousy; it was professional panic. That made me feel better and worse. Kallen was screwed. Which bothered me more than I wanted to analyze. Reyes could go down with her. And then I’d be a CI for the taking. Laurel’s guilt was a shield. A buffer. I liked my buffer. I also didn’t entirely hate the Kallen-Reyes duo. Aside from the whole cop thing, they weren’t terrible.

“So what do we do?” I asked.

“Nothing. You especially. We all behave and let her union rep deal with it. And I never told you any of this.”

“Don’t worry. I’m rewriting this entire narrative.” I waved my hand. “In my version, we were smart enough to meet somewhere without a fuckload of kids running around.”

* * *

My stereo was on. Which was odd because it hadn’t been when I left. That could only mean one thing. At the sound of the door closing, the volume dropped. A pair of feet wearing dirty canvas shoes hung over the back of my couch.

“I can get down with a lot of your preferences. But I just don’t get poetry.”

Andy. Who else would let themselves into my home, help themselves to my stereo, and leave their shoes on while sprawled on my couch?

“You know that’s just an indication that I need to inundate you with poetry, right?” I asked.

Andy swung her feet a bit while she presumably thought about that. “I’ll concede that song lyrics are poetry?” Her tone made the statement a question. As if she were asking to be let off the hook.

“I’ll take it.”

“Bitchin’.” She sat up and tossed The Marriage of Heaven and Hell on the coffee table. “So Mom said you thought I was avoiding you.”

“Yeah. I hadn’t seen you.” I sat next to her.

Andy picked absentmindedly at the frayed edge of her cutoffs. She wasn’t distracted or avoiding. Just energetic. “I was at my dad’s.”

I nodded. Three weeks was a long time for them, but Andy did usually make pilgrimages to his place in the summer. “Makes sense.”

“You’re a dumbass.”

I shrugged. “Yep.”

“You thought I was upset because I found out you were a drug dealer?”

Oh, joy. We were diving right in. “Yep.”

She caught my eyes and held. “I’ve known you were a dealer since I was twelve.”

“That’s hilarious.” That was not hilarious.

“I’m serious.” Andy didn’t look like she was fucking with me.

I held out hope that she had improved her game face dramatically in a matter of weeks. “Okay.”

“You only carry cash. Literally no one carries cash anymore. You put almost no effort in maintaining any sort of produce supply, but you’re constantly delivering produce.” She threw air quotes around delivering produce. “You never take drugs unless the situation is dire and my mom bullies you into it, yet you have an encyclopedic knowledge of drugs.” That word of the day dictionary was really doing its job. “You could say I didn’t know, know until a few months ago.”

“You mean weeks?”

“No. Months. Sophie’s older sister went to a college party. Her boyfriend bought pills from Nate.”

I had never truly hated myself until that moment. My half-truths and obvious lies crumbled into my lap. My product wasn’t mine. Once it left my hands, I had no say over the destination, no right to dictate how it was doled out and consumed. I could play benevolent drug dealer all day. But inevitably the benevolence would evaporate. And then I would simply be a drug dealer.

None of that was new. I’d known it all along, but it took Andy saying it to become real. I stared into her eyes and realized I couldn’t admit the truth. I couldn’t acknowledge the very real blow she had just delivered to my foundation. So I would have to play the role.

“Shit. Well, I guess that’s hard to argue.”

Andy didn’t move. She just studied my face. The look moved past socially acceptable and into uncomfortable staring. I held steady. If I didn’t move, maybe she couldn’t see me. “Okay. I gotta go. But I’ll see you later. Cool?”

I nodded. Andy bumped my shoulder as she stood. A watered down grin pulled at the edge of her mouth. We were trying, dammit. We were lost. I had lost us. But we were going to try to get back.

* * *

“How much do you want to know?” Nate asked.

I stared at my ceiling. Nickels flicked my nose with her tail. It was really impeding the view of my very interesting ceiling. I readjusted the phone so it wouldn’t fall. “Short version. But detail is fine.”

“What if they question you?”

“I’ll lie. Besides, not telling me isn’t protecting anyone. If you go down, I’m going with you.”

“This was your brilliant idea.”

“I’m a drug dealer. This is what I knew how to do.” It sounded flat. After my afternoon with Andy, my talents seemed cheap.

He sighed loudly. “Same, I guess.”

“I didn’t hear you talking me out of it.” I spread my fingers through Nickels’s fur. She started purring.

Nate laughed. “Okay, I ordered basics. Oxy, Adderall. Oxy is here. Adderall will get here in a couple days.”

“I still can’t believe you ordered drugs online. That’s wild.”

Nickels decided that it was rude of me to talk. She stopped purring.

“You are not that old.” Nate huffed. “I swear, man.”

With a final flick of her tail, Nickels jumped off me.

“It’s wild, though. Right?”

“Get your head out of your ass. Silk Road has been around for years. And this seller is rated really high.”

“For selling drugs online,” I said. Nate was right. This wasn’t a new concept. I had always avoided online retailers because it seemed so risky. Too many ways it could go south. But we were out of options.

“Focus.”

“Sorry. Okay, so you ordered drugs from Amazon-for-drugs.”

“It’s not—Fine. Yes. So half our shipment is here and Mateo said he would check the potency for us.”

“And Mateo is the guy you know from school?”

“Yeah, the pharmacology student.”

“And he is going to check to make sure it’s the drug it’s supposed to be, right? I’m not selling something that could be adulterated in some way.” Maybe I said that too forcefully.

“Obviously. Take it down a notch, man.”

“Sorry.” Context mattered. “I was talking to Reyes. It sounds like some idiot is selling counterfeit pills.”

Nate scoffed. “Great.”

“I’m supposed to ask if you know of anyone selling something like that. Or fentanyl.”

“Why me?”

“’Cause you’re better at trends and shit. You know of anyone doing anything like that?”

“No. But I’m not exactly dialed in anymore either. My customers are disappearing. I’ve had to pass up a fuckload of parties. So there’s not a lot of opportunity to get information right now.”

“I hear you. See what you can find out. If it’s nothing, we’ll tell Reyes that.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Cool. So Mateo is going to check. Then we can start selling?” I was worried. What we really needed was a way to launder money. Nate had a tuition payment coming. We couldn’t exactly pay his tuition in cash. But I was afraid that by the time we figured it out, we wouldn’t have any clients left to sell to. If I could just build a new business, keep my guilt at bay for another year or so, Nate would be clear. Yeah, nothing problematic with that plan. The look Andy had given me earlier was dragging me down.

“Theoretically, yeah.”

“Solid.”

“What are you up to tonight?”

“Second Saturday. With Robin.”

“You made up with Robin?” His voice went up in excitement.

“Yeah.” I tried to keep my tone cool, but didn’t succeed. “I’m taking her to Kyra’s show.”

“I’ll let you go then. Have fun.”

We hung up. I didn’t know how to tell him what Andy had said. Repeating it would give it power, existence. I wasn’t ready.

Chapter Four

I woke slowly. My phone had been vibrating, then there was knocking. More vibrations from the phone. More knocking. I finally woke up enough to figure out that someone was calling me. And pounding on the door. I read the barrage of messages on my phone interspersed with missed calls. Kallen and Reyes really wanted me to open the door. It took me a moment to connect that to the knocking and realize they were standing outside.

A glance at the clock confirmed why thinking was so hard. It was just after six. What sort of monsters were awake at this hour? Especially on a Sunday. Wasn’t that holy for some people?

After much wrestling with my blankets, I managed to find the edge of the bed. I pulled on last night’s jeans, grabbed a clean T-shirt out of my drawer. Put my T-shirt on backward, took off my T-shirt, put it back on. My phone vibrated with another message. I pressed the screen until the keyboard popped up.

Chill. I’m coming. I typed.

Merciful silence.

I stumbled into the bathroom. Went pee. Brushed my teeth. Washed my face. I felt marginally more awake. My eyes still felt gritty. My head still felt like it was stuffed with cotton. They’d better have brought coffee. I opened the door. No coffee. Reyes was leaning in the shadows with his face carefully turned from the street. Kallen was sitting on the stairs impatiently tapping her phone against her leg. They both looked at me. I left the door open and went to the kitchen. I hit the button to grind coffee and started putting the coffee machine together.

“I don’t suppose I’ll be going back to bed anytime soon?” I asked when they followed me.

“Don’t bother making coffee,” Laurel said. I had the briefest moment of hope. “We’re going to the station.”

It took every bit of effort I had to not physically react. “No.” I filled the carafe with water.

“We’re not asking.” Kallen shifted her stance out of contrapposto. She spread her feet, subtly rolled her shoulders. Christ, she thought I was going to run?

Reyes stepped forward. He shot a look at his partner. She tensed like she was going to fight him before chasing me down. He held her gaze. She went outside.

“Sorry. We’ve had a brutal night,” he said.

“That doesn’t make her shitty behavior okay.” I was no better than she was.

He nodded. “Yeah, I know. But maybe ease up on her until you get the lay of the land. We’re on the same side.”

“No, we’re not. There’s a pretty distinct power imbalance here.” I waved between me and him.

He stared at the ceiling, took a deep breath. I swear he counted to five. Then he looked back at me. “I’m very sorry we are here so early. Especially as we didn’t warn you.” I nodded in acceptance. “I’d like to ask you to come to the station with us. We have an ongoing case and Ionescu requested your presence. We will happily stop for coffee on the way to the station. My partner and I could use it as well.”

“If I ask what this is about, will you tell me?”

“I can’t.”

“Because you lack the tact?” I was aiming for levity, but my inability to smile worked against me.

Reyes forced a chuckle. “I wish it was that simple.”

“I’m going to finish getting dressed.”

“Hurry.”

I went back to my bedroom. The station was perpetually cold. At least in summer. I threw on a hooded long-sleeve tee. We were still in the cool part of the morning. I didn’t harbor any delusions that it would still be temperate when I got out. By nine we would be triple digits again. I loved summer, but the charm was waning the way it always did in August. Plus, I had a feeling I was going to spend the day enjoying the hospitality of the Sacramento Police Department. Reyes would probably kill me if I took the time to style my hair, so I grabbed the Massey Ferguson cap I’d stolen from Clive and put it on backward.


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